There’s always one group that captivates the American Folk Festival audience that camps out each night of the event at the Dance Pavilion. This year, it may have been Kenge Kenge, the eight-person group of Kenyan musicians from the Luo ethnic group who play an exuberant style called benga. Their performance Saturday night in the dance tent was full of joyful jumping, hips shaking and multi-generational shimmying to the infectious beat.
The group was founded in the 1990s and has evolved over the years, losing and gaining members but keeping its focus squarely on benga, a style of African music originating in the west of Kenya. The band plays traditional Luo instruments, from which the benga beat originally drew its sound, utilizing a one-stringed fiddle, gongs, horns, flutes and an array of percussive instruments. Their lyrics were spoken in the Luo language, and though it’s likely nobody in the crowd knew the words, the message was clear: life is to be celebrated.
Kenge Kenge hails from Nairobi, so their music brings in other influences as well – the loping, intricate guitar lines and massively rhythmic foundation bring to mind the music of lots of other parts of the great continent. The call and response vocals and high level of audience participation brought smiles to the faces of the crowd and the band alike. The colorfully clad dancers the band brought with them were an added visual bonus. Though their performance on the Railroad Stage earlier in the day was highly enjoyable, Kenge Kenge belongs in a place where people can dance. The Dance Pavilion is that place, and Bangor audiences looking for an excuse to get down and get funky can find no better opportunity to do so.